STEPHANE MAHE / POOL / AFP
Title holder Julian Alaphilippe won cycling’s world championships road race on Sunday, after dropping all of his rivals following a series of solo attacks on Flanders’ cobbled hills.
The Frenchman attacked from 50km out to create an elite group of 17 riders, then again from 15km to edge away to a solo victory in an epic 268km struggle through cycling’s heartland.
As road race world champion Alaphilippe will race the next year wearing the fabled rainbow jersey.
A four-way scrap for second place was clinched on the line by Dylan van Baarle of the Netherlands with Denmark’s Michael Valgren coming third.
Alaphilippe won in a similar manner a year ago in Italy.
The Belgian team had been favourites to win but leader Wout van Aert faded with 15km to go almost straight after his 21-year-old team-mate and protector Remco Evenepoel dropped out.
Evenpoel came under pressure this week when Belgian cycling legend Eddy Merckx said the youngster was an unreliable teammate.
But Sunday he rode for 200km right in front of Van Aert to protect him from the wind and the various hazards cyclists can face.
Soloing to the Leuven finish line alone and shaking his head in disbelief Alaphilippe said disappointed Belgian fans had insulted him.
“I think they’d been hoping for Van Aert and many of them had less than nice words for me as I approached the line,” he said.
“It kind of makes it doubly joyful to win here,” he added.
France team boss Thomas Voeckler repeated the word “indescribable” as he hugged Alaphilippe vigorously.
“We hadn’t planned it that way,” Alaphilippe said smiling.
Fans packed the roadside as Alaphilippe led the peloton out of the world diamond capital, the port city of Antwerp, for one of the most demanding races of the year.
Father to son
Belgium set a fast tempo and were cheered by the ever-present fans through the region’s lush green fields and above all on its atypical cobbled hills.
“I’m only human,” Van Aert said.
“I just didn’t have the legs.
“It was a highly demanding race and Alaphilippe was stronger than the rest of us,” he added.
Alaphilippe has a history of making solo breaks count.
After taking the yellow jersey on one such Tour de France rampage in the Champagne region three years ago, he remarked he had thought of his father to give him strength.
On Sunday, he found inspiration from another generation.
“I thought of my son and that did the trick, I’m speechless, I really did myself in there,” said Alaphilippe, who recently had his first child with the former cyclist and commentator Marion Rousse.
The race wrapped up an entertaining world championships with Filippo Ganna winning the time-trial and his Italian compatriot Elisa Balsamo denying the mighty Dutch clique in the women’s road race final.